Monday 27 August 2007

The two new Black Rocks are feisty characters, especially the younger one, Rocky. Her friend Delilah is more corpulent and has more of a comb and her behaviour, although quite bubbly too, is less exuberant. Rocky spots you from a distance and follows you around running at high speed, and when she catches up with you she overtakes you, she stands in front of you and goes flat on the ground spreading her wings. You have either to walk around her or bend over and stroke her head, which appears to please her, even if her real hope was that you would have some corn for her.

When Rocky and Delilah first arrived they were bullied by the older residents, Geordie and Bob Johnson. Jealous of their space and food, the senior hens would peck the junior ones so mercilessly that we often felt we had to intervene. It took several days for the four of them to learn to coexist in some kind of entente cordiale, although the balance of power was far from even, and the everyday activities were segregated along colour lines: two brown hens on one side, two black hens on the other. Until Geordie got broody.

One day Geordie was seen all puffed up, sitting sulky and motionless in quiet corners instead of being out in the field foraging for food with her comrades as usual. Alarmed, I phoned W to seek advice. When I described the symptoms, the diagnosis came unhesitant: “she’s clocking”.

At least that is what I now understand W to have said, even though at the time I thought he was saying “she’s clucking”. After all, I had heard it over the phone, I’m new to this area, not a native English speaker, and certainly no expert in the jargon of hens. But K was prompt to correct me. Clocking it was, even if I could not find independent corroboration in the dictionary. The fact is, I knew what W meant, and K knew what I meant, and Geordie seemed to know what she was doing as she did it with assurance. What took me aback was the intensity of the broodiness, and its duration. Day after day she refused to join the other three, preferring instead to sit alone and sulk. Gradually she even lost the interest in food, her one remaining pleasure being sitting in the sun. Although there was no visible reduction in her bulk, it was clear that she was getting weak, and one evening she did not have the strength or the will to go back to the hen house. She sat in a corner by the hens’ gate, with her face against the wall. There was something resolute and final about her posture, and by this time I was wondering if there wasn’t more to Geordie’s sufferings than mere broodiness. I let her be, partly from fear that, whatever her ailment was, it may be contagious, and I closed the door to the hen house with the other three in it. I fully expected to find Geordie on the same spot the next day.

First thing in the morning I went to the hen house, and on the spot by the gate where I had left Geordie there was nothing. The other three came out of their house and down to their breakfast, seemingly cheery and in good health. When I told W, he said he had seen brown feathers on the way to the field – sure sign that the fox had got Geordie.